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On the Right Tract

County redesigns plans for aquatic and athletic complex north of Crystal City.

Arlington is one step closer to having a top-notch athletic and aquatic facility on the North Tract property, now that the County Board members have endorsed a redesign of the site’s layout and building location.

The North Tract project will be the largest, and most expensive, capital parks undertaking in the county’s history.

When construction is completed, the 30-acre site — overlooking the Potomac River just north of Crystal City — will contain an aquatic and fitness center, four synthetic grass athletic fields and a public gathering space for concerts and other events. There will also be an esplanade that runs along the exterior of the site for walking and biking, natural wetlands and public arts space.

THE FIRST phase of construction will cost $75 million, which the county has secured funding for, and is expected to be completed in 2010. This segment of the project will include the opening of the aquatic complex, with leisure and competitive swimming pools, and the building of two soccer fields.

Meanwhile, the county government is exploring a mixture of sponsorships, public-private partnerships and a bond referendum package to generate the additional $61 million needed to complete its vision for the site.

County officials foresee North Tract as an attractive gateway to Arlington, with grand views of Washington’s monuments.

"This project calls for something that will make an impression," County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman said in a North Tract work session in late February, during which the board approved the site’s redesign. "But it is in the core of the Washington area, so it needs to be modest enough to fit in and harmonize" with the surrounding monuments.

For years Arlington residents have been clamoring for greater athletic facilities, but the scarcity of unused land in the county has stymied previous efforts.

The North Tract facilities will enable the county to host premier soccer, basketball, track and field and swimming competitions.

Just as important is that it will supply the residents of south Arlington and Crystal City with an easily accessible outdoor venue for entertainment and community events, said County Board member Walter Tejada.

"This addresses the needs of thousands of Arlingtonians who desire a place for large public gatherings," Tejada added. "I’m really looking forward to this."

Though board members lauded a design team’s proposal for the site — calling it one of the most impressive plans to have come before them — they also cautioned that the scope of the project and rising construction costs pose a daunting challenge.

"THIS IS well worth the wait," County Board Vice Chairman Paul Ferguson said. "But the longer we wait the more costs will go up."

The board first adopted a master plan for the site in February 2004, and that fall Arlington voters approved a $50 million bond to finance the project.

Plans began to move forward after the county completed a land swap with Monument Realty. As part of the exchange the government received a seven-acre site that was once the Twin Bridges Marriot Hotel, and $25 million to help defray the costs of building the new sports facilities.

In return Monument acquired a five-acre plot of land on the north end of the site, where several abandoned warehouses now sit.

Construction on the first phase is scheduled to begin in the summer of 2008, and will include the completion of a 40-foot wide esplanade that will run from the end of Crystal City Drive to the George Washington Parkway.

The esplanade will form the "backbone" of North Tract and will be 10 to 15 feet high, overlooking an adjacent railway line, said Gavin McMillan, a landscape architect for Hargreaves Associates.

Four soccer fields will sit at the entrance to the park, along with a three-story garage. One of the fields will be the "championship field" and have grandstand seating.

A wetlands garden will drain water from the site, and a large lawn area and fountain will separate the fields from the aquatic and sports center. The fountain may be converted into an ice rink in the winter, county officials said.

Most of the indoor facility will be taken up by leisure and competition swimming pools, with bleachers for 800 spectators.

The indoor building will also house a running track, fitness center, climbing wall and meeting rooms.

During the work session the project’s designers emphasized the flexibility of the building's space, which will house four basketball courts that can be converted for other uses.

"We want it to be a multi-activity center so it can have everything from a crafts show to a large-scale sporting event," said Craig Bouck, an architect with Barker Rinker Seacat.

North Tract’s costs are escalating rapidly though. The estimate for the first phase has ballooned from $47 million to the present price tag of $75 million.

"It’s a bad time to hit the market, but there are no signs that waiting will make it better," said County Manager Ron Carlee.

THE BOARD members are still contemplating how best to raise the nearly $61 million needed for the second phase of construction. In order to use less of taxpayer's money, they are exploring sponsorships, selling branding rights and forming partnerships with private companies.

While corporate money can help mitigate the operational costs of running the facilities they will not be enough to pay for the construction, Carlee said.

User and activities fees are another possible way for the county to generate funding for North Tract, Zimmerman said.

"People drive to Rockville and Chantilly for facilities that aren’t that great," Zimmerman said. "And the demand is only going up. So there is clearly potential for other sources of revenue."